RICHMOND -- After a meteoric rise to power over the past decade, the city's alliance of political progressives faces long odds in November as it looks to withstand the deep pockets of some of the world's biggest corporations.
Swarmed by $3.4 million in corporate dollars so far, with city blocks blanketed in political ads, critics and supporters openly wonder whether the 2012 election is the Richmond Progressive Alliance's Battle of Waterloo.
"Ideology overrode common sense this time," said Eric Zell, a longtime local political consultant. "And it's probably going to cost them."
The American Beverage Association has poured $2.2 million and counting into the city to defeat the RPA-backed Measure N, a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. At the same time, Chevron USA has pumped in $1.2 million, mostly to back three council candidates and attack the candidacies of two RPA members.
RPA candidates Marilyn Langlois and Eduardo Martinez have about $60,000 between them, while the RPA and pro-Measure N allies have less than $1 for every $50 spent against them, according to campaign disclosure reports filed Oct. 5. Anti-RPA forces have a key opening with progressive stalwart Jeff Ritterman, a retired cardiologist and the leader of the effort to tax sugary drinks, opting to not seek re-election.
Richmond is a blue collar town with a history of richly financed elections and colorful politics. In the past decade, the RPA, a small but fierce band of progressive volunteers, wrested control of local government.
It's won elections and ballot measures as the antidote of Chevron and special interests, beating money and old town alliances with sweat and fervor.
"Big money doesn't buy what it used to in terms of votes," Ritterman said. "People see what Big Soda is doing this year, and they're sick of it."
Tempers are running high, even by Richmond's standards. Last month, a 72-year-old RPA member was arrested for allegedly punching Councilman Corky Booze at a political event.
RPA leaders use military metaphors to describe what's happening in Richmond.
"Outsiders have come in and pursued an intense carpet-bombing strategy with seemingly limitless funding," said Andres Soto, one of the quintet of local activists who founded the RPA in 2003. "But we are in every community, knocking on doors, engaging our neighbors. It's a classic grassroots versus outside corporations struggle."
Zell, who has worked in local politics for decades, including for Chevron, sees it different.
"The beverage tax is the wrong issue, in the wrong community, at the wrong time," Zell said.
The rise and sometimes spectacular political success of the RPA in Richmond is so improbable that some residents and critics still have trouble coming to grips with how it all happened.
The group was founded by Soto, activists Juan Reardon, Roberto Reyes and a then-unknown newcomer named Gayle McLaughlin.
"The city needed a new way of doing things around that time," Soto said. "We had become a Democratic town whose leaders were totally controlled by Republican, big corporate interests."
McLaughlin rode her grassroots support to the Mayor's Office. Then came other legislative victories, and the ascent of allies on the City Council who helped strengthen the RPA's grip. With the twin victories of progressive candidate Jovanka Beckles and a measure that killed a proposed $1.2 billion casino-hotel project at Point Molate, the RPA reached a zenith by 2010. Five of seven members of the City Council are solidly progressive votes.
Symbolic resolutions and progressive legislation followed in a torrent. Richmond joined Berkeley and other far-left cities in declaring residents with pets to be "guardians" rather than "owners," condemned an Israeli attack on a humanitarian flotilla to Gaza, supported a state "millionaires tax" and, of course, put a sugar tax on the November ballot.
For some longtime residents, it's too fast and too far.
"Richmond has always been a working class town with working class issues," said Jim McMillan, a Richmond councilman in the 1980s and 1990s. "But this city has seen radical political change in the last five years, at least at the top."
With the sugar-sweetened beverage tax, the RPA may have permanently eroded a slice of its base, some say. RPA leaders, including Reardon, have worked to combat the perception that the tax is unpopular among African-Americans and Latinos. The ABA has spent almost twice as much in Richmond as in El Monte, a Los Angeles County suburb with a similar beverage tax.
"El Monte doesn't have a progressive movement like we have here," Soto said. "The ABA can suppress them for less."
But opponents insist that African-American and Latino organizations in the city, representing groups that comprise about three-quarters of the city's 103,000 residents, oppose the tax and equate it with the RPA.
"People are angry," said Rafael Madrigal, president of the 23rd Street Merchants Association, a group representing the city's growing Latino business community. "What the community needs are job creators and development, and useless taxes which hurt the Latino community have gotten people's attention."
Soto disagrees, calling Madrigal a "shill" for the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, another local organization firmly opposed to Measure N. Soto said the RPA's support for day laborers and municipal ID cards have helped earn broad support among the ethnic group, now the city's largest.
"The Latino community is with us in general, and on Measure N in particular," Soto said.